Recently Read 2

Everything is Sinister coverThe existence of a book like Everything is Sinister doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Reality TV has by now become an easy fictive shorthand for a certain level of cultural obnoxiousness, and as such a gift for satirists (or would-be satirists), so a story set in a near future which emphasizes the vacuousness or ugliness of the celebrity culture that reality shows encourage hardly feels like speculation at all. (Indeed, there’s at least one other novel published in the UK this year – Glynn Maxwell’s The Girl Who Was Going to Die – that seems to take a similar approach, though I haven’t read it; and Amelie Nothomb’s Sulphuric Acid, translated last year, featured a reality show cheerfully called Concentration, about, yes, a labour camp.) But even beyond this, in attitude and setting Everything is Sinister appears to have similarities with a clutch of other recent novels; I’m thinking of books like Matthew de Abaitua’s The Red Men or Will Ashon’s Clear Water, which like Everything is Sinister are set in darkened versions of our present, in which one factor or another that shapes our lives has been intensified until it threatens to self-destruct. In de Abaitua’s novel it’s modern office life; in Ashon’s, consumerism; here, as noted, it’s the power of celebrity. The narrator, Ed Raynes, is the showbiz correspondent of a (fictional) tabloid called The Voice of the People, and as the novel opens he’s covering the current series of a show called Lockdown, and struggling with his concerns about the likely winner, Colin Curtis, who has an unsavoury past that hasn’t been publicised. Raynes feels increasingly alienated from the world around him, and when he’s beaten up on his way home one evening, he cracks and retreats into his flat to observe what he thinks (and what a very odd neighbour encourages him to think) is the ugly collapse of modern society taking place all around him.

It’s quite satisfying, then, to be able to report that Everything is Sinister largely works; Lockdown is by no means the only sfnal touch in the piece, and the narrative is well controlled, clocking in at a little under two hundred pages. In a number of ways, certainly, it treads ground covered by earlier genre authors. Mostly the resonances are the ones you’d expect — there’s more than a dash of Bug Jack Barron, a hint of Time out of Joint-flavour Dick, and in its portrayal of a complete moral collapse, just a touch of Ballard – but there are also, I think, some interesting comparisons to be made with Stand on Zanzibar. Like that novel, Everything is Sinister is set in 2010, and one way of describing the world in which it’s set is that it keeps everything Brunner got right. So: it’s a future in which overcrowding (if not actual overpopulation) is (at least Ed Raynes believes) literally driving people mad, with riots that spring up for no reason; casual drug use is rife, including a sedative called Derekon and symph, a drug that makes you believe you’re remembering the future; and the world is information-saturated. What’s most striking is the way in which this is represented: as part of his retreat, Raynes immerses himself in the online and televisual worlds, transcribed by Llwellyn in sections that read like nothing so much as The Happening World segments of Stand on Zanzibar. (With a bit more editorializing than Brunner let himself indulge in; although on the other hand, Brunner didn’t have the opportunity to include a hilariously accurate future broadcast of Newsnight Review.) Whether or not any of this is deliberate I won’t pretend to guess — both books have epigraphs that reference Marshall McLuhan, but really all I know about Llwellyn’s genre credentials is that his previous novel was a Torchwood tie-in, which frankly you could take as evidence either way – but it feels like the work of a writer who know what he’s doing.

Llwellyn’s created future is nothing like as panoramic or as dense as Brunner’s, of course, and there is something a little quaint about his inventions: the way The Voice of the People and Lockdown are so patently stand-ins modelled on The Sun (down to featuring “page four girls”, and despite the fact that The Sun is itself mentioned in the novel) and Big Brother; or in the way he gives us an extract from “Megapedia”, or talks about the “Jupiter Music Prize”; or in the sorts of brandnames he comes up with (to my ear, “C-Fish”, the novel’s supercharged Blackberry-equivalent, just doesn’t work). But accepting this backdrop, in many cases, Llewellyn’s eye is good, in particular his detail of the banality of modern media life. A paroled contestant from Lockdown goes to a club where, “instead of dancing, she strikes dance-like poses” for a photographer, “a breathing waxwork begging to be immortalised” (16); press junkets and exclusive parties seem as “ephemeral as snowflakes” (51); when hiding out in his flat, he watches the streams of commuters with his neighbours, “as content as men watching a sunset” (62). His eye for the specifics of place isn’t bad, either, which is just as well since he spends quite a lot of time describing things; but even the obligatory Canary-Wharf-is-sfnal moments feel relatively fresh.

But I think what ultimately makes Everything is Sinister worth reading is velocity. It doesn’t waste any of its pages; the narrative is divided into succinct chunks that come (like blog posts) with handy subject lines and timestamps, and the further into obsessive despair that Ed Raynes slips, the more biliously claustrophobic is the cumulative effect. “Something is wrong with people” is a repeated refrain in the novel’s second half, uttered with increasing conviction in the face of a parade of black-humoured plot twists, as Raynes appears to disappear down the rabbit-hole of his psyche good and proper. Ultimately we come to understand just how complete Raynes’ self-imposed lockdown is, how completely impotent are his attempts to rage against a culture thirsty for ever less inhibited forms of “reality”, and that there really is no possibility of parole; for us as well as him.


After Dark coverA little over half-way through Everything is Sinister, Ed Raynes is enticed into leaving his flat by the intoxicating violence of a nearby riot. When he reaches the scene, he finds himself — for once — in front of a camera, rather than behind, and observes that there is “something other-worldly about existing, however briefly, on the flip side of a television screen” (107). It’s a psychological observation that becomes literally true in Haruki Murakmi’s most recent novel to be translated into English, After Dark (2004/2007), where it serves as the central lynchpin of weirdness in a more cerebral exploration of urban alienation. It’s also just one iteration of what is probably After Dark‘s USP, namely its concern with perspective. Unlike in Llwellyn’s book, we get little or no description of place beyond some initial scene-setting, a diorama of hyperconnectedness that’s enough to call to mind all the traditionally cyberpunky images of urban Japan. Where this story is set isn’t half so important as who is telling it and who it’s about.

The narrator turns out to be an anonymous, first-person-plural omniscient narrator who directs our attention to a series of figures within the landscape. Depending on how you identify the narrator – at times it seems like it could be a supernatural entity, at others a manifestation of urban consciousness (if you squint, you can almost read it as an urban AI), and at still others simply a metafictional reflection of the reader – the book can be read in different ways. But whichever way you take it, the narrator frames everything we know about the characters in a much more explicit way than most novels, gently guiding us to look first one way and then another. The character it spends most time watching is Mari, a college freshman we first see sitting alone in a Denny’s, just before midnight, reading a book. She’s joined fairly quickly by Takahashi, a guy who sort-of knows her (he knows, or would like to get to know, Mari’s sister), and they have the first of what is one of many slightly rambling conversations that punctuate the story. These conversations veer unpredictably between the banal and callow and the incisive and moving — Mari and Takahashi talk about, among other things, what to eat, why siblings are different, and how to live a good life. The story spiderwebs out along connections from this initial meeting to take in the staff at a nearby love hotel, an overworked salaryman, and Mari’s sister Eri, who turns out to be the girl who disappears through the TV — an eerie sequence, made more unnerving by the narrator’s insistence that they can’t intervene: “We follow the same rules, so to speak, as orthodox time travellers” (27).

If humanity in Everything is Sinister is being driven wild by over-saturation and over-connection, in After Dark something like the opposite is true: we are never more separated than when we are crowded together. The nocturnal setting — the entire novel takes place in one night, with, as in Llwellyn’s book, each short chapter bearing its own timestamp — is offered as a liminal zone, a place where different worlds can meet and start to mix in a way they wouldn’t do during the day. The city is presented more than once as something living, as a “single collective entity” (3), whose circulatory system transports data, consumables and – tellingly – contradictions. It’s at night time, apparently, when these contradictions start to surface, when they can be challenged and renewed, and when the barriers between worlds — not just between Mari and Takahashi, who come from different peer groups, but between the criminal and law-abiding worlds, and even the fantastic and the real – are most frail. And yet all of these worlds are part of a “single collective entity” (3). One of the locations to which the story returns several times is, as mentioned, a love hotel, with the rather revealing name of Alphaville, explicitly after the film: “in Alphaville”, Mari explains, “you’re not allowed to have deep feelings. So there’s nothing like love. No contradictions, no irony.” When Mari confirms that there is sex in the film’s Alphaville, her interlocutor muses, “Sex that doesn’t need love or irony […] Alphaville may be the perfect name for a love ho” (60). Or, put another way, Alphaville is a place of no contradictions, an abstracted image of a city rather than the real thing.

After Dark is never less than engaging, is often charming, and a couple of times unsettling; but it has a problem, which is that the central point of view is as limiting as it is freeing. A narrator who belongs to all and none of the book’s worlds can aspire to the pretense of impartiality, can (for example) chill us with its voyeuristic depiction of Eri’s somnambulistic journey into TV-land; but for all that it holds the promise of revealing the real urban landscape, it ultimately cannot convey the experience of it. Like Ed Raynes, Murakami’s narrator watches and catalogues, but After Dark‘s final contradiction is that we never enter Mari’s world in the way that we enter Ed’s: it’s on the wrong side of the screen.


The Story of Forgetting coverOne of the two narrators of The Story of Forgetting is a stranger in the modern world, too, but that’s because it’s literally grown up around him. Abel is an old man, living alone in a small house in suburban Texas, surrounded by modern developments that have gradually encroached on the open spaces he used to know, and by which he seems stubbornly indifferent. (He has a horse; when he rides it to the shops we’re told “he rejected the industrial revolution as though it were one man’s opinion”, 74). As in the above two books, Abel’s story is one of observation, but his focus is himself and a recollection of his life and the losses he has endured. “I have no choice but to remember everything,” he thinks. “So much has changed” (68) And so much has been lost: twin brother Paul is gone, as is Paul’s wife, Mae (one of a number of women in the book who get a slightly raw deal, although there’s a lot of misery to go around in general); as is the daughter that might have been Abel’s, as the result of an affair, or may have been Paul’s. No surprise that Abel’s stories are marked by self-loathing, loneliness and self-pity; and yet they draw us in. Abel is a hard man to like, but easy to listen to.

Seth Waller also knows that remembering isn’t easy, and also finds himself compelled to remember anyway, if for a different reason: “only because I’ve sworn myself to full and total honesty,” he tells us, “will I remember it now on purpose” (21). “It”, at this point, is a specific incident in the gradual erosion of his mother by Alzheimer’s disease: how he discovered his mother after a fall. This and other memories, such as the night she wandered off in search of home, carrying a suitcase full of rotting meat, go part way to explaining why Seth – in high school at the time – decides that the solution is to devote himself to learning as much as he can about his mother’s condition, and the brain in general. The more Seth learns about the particular (fictional) variant of Alzheimer’s afflicting his mother – it is early-onset; it is heritable – the more he wants to learn. He gets his hands on a copy of a research database, which describes the distribution of the EOA-23 gene responsible for the disease across North America. He starts visiting whichever sufferers he can reach, in an investigation whose depiction of sadness is sometimes unbearably poignant, and sometimes uncomfortably pornographic. It’s not until very near the end of the book that Seth learns what is obvious to us, watching him, from early on: that he’s trying to learn how to understand his own life, as much as the disease that’s blighted it.

Braided with these two strands are two others that explore the same concerns in ways that tend to be just a little two obvious. One is a genetic history, following the propagation of the gene for that variant of early-onset Alzheimer’s from its creation in the DNA of one Alban Mabblethorpe, lord of Iddywahl. English names are not Block’s strong suit, but he can write about the mechanisms of molecular biology with not a little poetry — replication gone wrong causes the polynucleotides “to fray and recoil like hair over a flame” (55); the beginning of Memory, the start of biochemical life, is “a simple repetition of a few simple units, like a bar of a song stuck in one’s head” (240) – and, perhaps because they achieve a bit more distance from their subject, these sections contain some of the most engaging in the book, ironic in tone but precise in detail. And then there are the stories of Isidora, stories told to both Abel and Seth as children, of a land without memory, “where every need is met and sadness is forgotten” (13). “There are places where you can cross”, the novel’s opening states, but it’s a false promise: Isidora remains a story throughout the novel, serving as a commentary on the power and seduction of fantasy.

Which is where the novel both succeeds and fails. What there is to admire in The Story of Forgetting is in the specifics: the voices of Abel and Seth, the way science and sorrow are both transmuted to story, the particular scenes that live in the memory. The tales of Isidora are perhaps the purest expression of this virtue. For all their brevity, they can be startlingly eloquent, and the complexity with which they recapitulate the world grows throughout the novel. I can very nearly believe in Isidora as a necessary consolation: like the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind, it is a story told to make the story of forgetting bearable to watch. But in the end, it also exemplifies the contradiction at the novel’s core, which makes it a hard book to love: because while sentiment demands justice, intellect refuses it.


Rumble Strip coverIf The Story of Forgetting is about making something ugly bearable through beauty, Woodrow Phoenix’s latest graphic novel, for all that it’s never explicit, is about revealing ugliness. Rumble Strip is a polemic against irresponsible car use, not on environmental grounds but on the simple and arguably more immediate big-lump-of-metal-moving-scarily-fast grounds of safety. The opening pages imagine a world in which every building had a grand piano hanging outside it, suspended by a couple of strings, as a way of freshening up our perception of the risks of driving; and the rest of the book is similarly blunt. Drawn in stark black/white/grey, it is extremely well-paced, measuring the rise and rise of a pulse of anger, and it understands the seductiveness of cars in greater depth than simply the way they represent a lifestyle choice. I think Phoenix goes too far in his discussion of how people rate “best car” exclusively by speed — I just don’t think that’s true, even among hard-core car nerds — but the basic point stands, and there’s no doubt he makes his case for an imbalance in modern society, that we cede too much to the car, with power and skill. The book’s ultimate triumph is its artwork: it never shows a real person, or a car. Nearly every page unfolds as if showing the view from behind the windscreen in an ostensible driver’s paradise, the truly open and empty road. But it becomes an eerie and irrational world: a segment that emphasizes the commanding nature of the lines in an empty car park is particularly potent.

The Gone-Away World

The Gone-Away World coverIt takes a little while, because there is something entertaining in almost every paragraph of The Gone-Away World, but sooner or later you start to wonder when (or even if) you’re going to get back to where you started. The first chapter of Nick Harkaway’s first novel introduces an unusually fluid post-apocalyptic landscape and a bunch of trucker-repairmen who get charged with saving the world; the fact that in no sense is this introduction economical is insufficient preparation for the hundreds of pages of laconic flashback that follow, in which we skip back to the narrator’s school days and read about the development of his friendship with one Gonzo Lubitsch (more of him later), his early romantic fumblings and martial arts lessons, his eventual transition to an Oxbridge-esque university, his falling-in with a group of political activists, his arrest and incarceration for suspected terrorism, his difficult subsequent job-hunt, the details of the job he eventually finds with a top secret weapons R&D outfit, his tour of duty in an Afghanistan-esque clusterfuck of a conflict in a made-up Middle East country including a stint as stretcherman, injury and subsequent convalescence, and …. well, you get the idea. There’s an awful lot of Stuff in this novel. Some of it is told with deadly intensity, but most of it is told with a great and convincing enthusiasm — Harkaway’s narrator can gab like Iain M Banks on a roll — that is easy to wallow in. It’s not so much the clomping foot of nerdism as the dance-dance revolution; but, still, you do wonder when you might get back to where you started.

None of which is to say The Gone-Away World is a bad book. I think it’s probably a very good one, as it happens; but I also think that opening chapter is a mis-step, because it creates an expectation that the next two hundred pages go almost out of their way to refute. Harkaway’s love of meandering, tangential narrative is apparently almost Stephensonian in its excess, and in the midst of it you can end up drumming your fingers: the digressions and set-pieces can stop being enjoyable for their own sake. Which is a shame, because while some of the time it all adds up to a numbing excess of detail — when the narrator receives a note, for example, we’re told the handwriting style, the meaning of the style, the colour of the ink, the type of pen, and the type of paper; and at one point we get a loving description of every pothole in the driveway of his house — most of the time Harkaway directs his plot with a swagger, not to mention dollops of wry humour. The two-page exploration of the fate of sheep caught in a warzone, for instance, or the scene in which the narrator ends up stranded in a strip joint with a troupe of mimes, which turns out to be a lot less superfluous than it initially seems. From a distance, it seems obvious that the conviction, if not coherence, with which the narrative sweeps from a world more or less like our own (with a few notable but usually irrelevant-to-the-plot differences: Cuba has joined the UK, for instance) to one that is richly unfamiliar is one of The Gone-Away World‘s greatest strengths. It’s a novel that believes absolutely in whatever it’s telling you at any given moment. But the memory of that first chapter, and the promised future, means you can’t always enjoy that sweep as you’re reading.

Because the desire to get back to that opening world — to get some answers — is pretty intense. What you can piece together from the opening twenty-eight pages goes a little something like this: at some point, the Go-Away War changed the planet, erasing much of what went before — people, institutions, geography — and leaving only a Liveable Zone surrounded by an Unreal World. The Zone is maintained by something called the Jorgmund Pipe, Jorgmund being a gigacorporation that’s risen up to carve something like sanity out of something like a nightmare; and the Pipe sprays something called FOX into the air, which keeps away the bad things. The narrator, and the menagerie with whom he hangs out in the Nameless Bar — Jim Hepsobah, Egon Schlender, Annie the Ox, Sally Culpepper, Tobemory Trent, Gonzo Lubitsch (him again), Samuel P, and Roy Roam (I still can’t quite decide whether Harkaway’s way with names is evidence of genius or insanity) — are the Haulage and Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (“ten trucks of bad hair, denim, and spurs”, 10), and when the Pipe catches on fire, they’re the ones that Jorgmund recruits to get it fixed. After disquisitions on types of bureaucrat (the ultimate of which would be “a person so entirely consumed by the mechanism in which he or she is employed that they had ceased to exist as a separte entity”, 15-6) and the workings of corporations (in the form of a parable about Alfred Montrose Fingermuffin, factory-owner), and negotiation strategies (“an ellipsis is a haymaker punch you throw with your mouth”, 16), the Company suit up and roll out, heading for the fire on a route which takes them through some distinctly creepy places. Harkaway has a habit of describing everything as seen through a sort of Spinal Tap everything-up-to-eleven lens — part of the enthusiasm I mentioned before — so a chair is monstrously comfortable, a plan includes magnificent redundancy, an individual is full of majestic self-importance. He gets away with it because he’s got a world to show us that we really haven’t seen before; the closest contemporary comparison I can think of is with the Stuff-filled “high-interaction” sidebar universes in Justina Robson’s clear-sighted negotiation of romance, Living Next-Door to the God of Love (2005). Like that, but writ large.

While we wait for that world to reappear, what gradually becomes apparent is that the sundering of this world we (almost) know is a specifically twenty-first century kind of apocalypse. The Go-Away war — a ferocious hundred pages of which takes up the heart of the book — isn’t the sort of thing that can be reduced to an easy allegory, but it’s clearly figured as a sort of millennial transition between then and now, old and new. It’s the preparations for war that bring the sf back into the story after over a hundred pages of youth and young manhood, when the narrator is recruited into a research division working on a new superweapon, one that will make enemies simply Go Away. His boss Professor Derek (a not-un-Q-like role) describes the principle this way: “Information, then, does matter — in the sense that it is the organizing principle without which matter simply cannot exist. Without matter, there is no universe and there’s no place to do anything. WIthout information, matter withers away. Vanishes. And gradually, even the memory fades. It won’t dissipate entirely, of course. But it becomes … slippery” (147). It’s a speech that gets at the heart of the novel: the tension between order and chaos — or organization and autonomy.

Harkaway’s evident interest in the world he’s creating is a joy, but it’s working through this theme that really brings out the best in him as writer. Not that the depiction of teen emotions and student philosophising and so forth is ever less than satisfactory, but the chapter in which the bombs are deployed en masse, as part of a stupid, wasteful escalation from a small-scale but politically useful conflict, is little short of terrifying: how lethal the absence of information, of certainty. Shadows become traps, places where the unreality is most concentrated and most horrible: “The attack is here, and there are people dying, but there’s no enemy, just darkness, confusion, and people getting dead. It’s as if this was weather” (216), with bullets “drifting on the wind like pollen” (218). It is, the narrator later realises, “the grimy rag and bone subconscious of our race” (272), come home to roost.

Standing tall amidst the chaos is Gonzo Lubitsch, big damn hero. (I said I’d get back to him eventually.) Back in the first chapter, the relationship between Gonzo and our narrator was sketched out in asides: “When the phone did ring (any time now), we could go and be heroes and save the world, which was Gonzo’s favourite thing, and perforce something I did from time to time as well” (7). He is not the leader of the Freebooters — that’s Sally Culpepper — but he is charismatic, confident, extremely dangerous, and probably wouldn’t recognise irony if it hit him with a plank. He is capital-H-Heroic, and the narrator is his shadow, his confidant, his wingman. Surprisingly little time is dedicated to establishing this relationship, but the fact of it is always there and frequently asserted; even Gonzo’s absence defines the narrator’s presence, with all actions measured against an impossible standard of What Would Gonzo Do? The biggest implications of this relationship for the narrator don’t become clear until quite a long way into the book, but from early on it serves as evidence that as much as the Go-Away War strips order from the world, the characters in The Gone-Away World need order to understand their souls: in just about every case, who they are is defined by what they do, from the “pencilnecks” who sacrifice their individuality to the corporate beast, to the soldiers for whom sublimation into a military hierarchy can be a form of salvation, to the “new” entities created after the war who simply want to live. The struggle at the heart of The Gone-Away World is the struggle against disorder, but it’s against personal apocalypse as much as global; the link between the two is emphatically undermined by a late-ish plot development that also confirms Harkaway’s commitment to the sfnal elments of his book. Unfortunately for those characters who get well and truly fucked along the way, it’s well-known, as one character puts it, that “the second law of thermodynamics … does not look kindly on unfucking” (383).

Of course, the narrator manages to find a way to live, and indeed at the end of the novel he’s alive in ways he didn’t realise he wasn’t at the start — not to mention perhaps the real hero. You could say that he survives the system, though I doubt The Gone-Away World would want me to paraphrase its conclusion in such po-faced terms: this is a book in which quite a lot is resolved by fighting, culminating in a triumphantly over-the-top, if somewhat boy’s-own, action sequence (during which Harkaway nevertheless finds time for his narrator to speculate on whether squid can watch TV). More than once in the book’s final chapters, you might recall the narrator’s loving description of kung fu movies from his youth — “The martial arts film is a curiously sentimental thing, fraught with high promises and melodrama … The plots are moral, Shakespearean, and have a tendency to charge off in some unexpected direction for twenty minutes before returning to the main drama as if nothing has happened” (44) — and, given its accuracy as a description of The Gone-Away World, wonder exactly how successfully the novel itself has resisted the call of comfortable, orderly formula. Resist it does — with those digressions and their (in Harkawayan terms) often monumental hilarity it’s a book constantly straining against its own coherence — but its ultimate completeness somehow suggests that The Gone-Away World might die in the memory as completely as it lives in the moment. The saving grace may be the ending, which stubbornly refuses to settle for getting the book back to where it started, and instead insists on escape into who-knows-what. “From here,” the narrator says, at the end, “it’s all about forwards” (531). So speaks a native of his country.

The Short Story Nominees

I am usually underwhelmed by the Hugo short story nominees. I accept that my tastes are out of step with the pool of Hugo voters, as I am not a big fan of Michael Burstein’s short fiction, and the less said about most of Mike Resnick and Robert J. Sawyer’s previous nominees the better, but the one time I voted in the Hugos I put No Award first as a protest against how uniformly terrible the stories on that year’s ballot were. So it’s pleasing to report that the short stories, while not all great, range from pretty decent to really pretty damn good. Here’s my ranking:

Bottom of my ballot I would put Mike Resnick’s Distant Replay. It’s the best Mike Resnick story I have ever read, and that’s why it wouldn’t end up below No Award, but the appeal of his work remains a total mystery to me. Yet another story about science fiction being used in some way to reunite a man with his love, (in this case, a man meets a young man and woman who are exactly like him and his (dead) wife, and hooks them up), it’s less cloyingly sentimental than usual and has a couple of nice ideas, and that’s about it.

A Small Room in Koboldtown, by Michael Swanwick, is a locked-room mystery noir in a fantasy setting. The internet informs me it’s a universe he’s written in before, and the setting is interesting, but then it uses the fantasy setting to pull a big cheat. I like mysteries, and they work best when they are clever enough that you can’t work out exactly how it was done but all the clues are there. When the resolution of the mystery is a magical solution I couldn’t predict, I feel cheated out of my ending.

Having dispatched with the bottom two, we get to two stalwarts of the UK SF scene who are harder to separate – Ken MacLeod’s Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? and Stephen Baxter’s Last Contact. Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? is space opera from Ken MacLeod, in the same setting as his BSFA-award-winning Lighting Out. Proper hard SF, it has AIs and seedships and lots of future civilizations, I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I expected. I think it could do with being longer, to flesh out the events around the ending, and give us more of the central character. There’s just nothing which particularly grabs me, so I put it at number three.

Last Contact is a very English disaster story – the big SFnal idea is the end of the world, but the story is about two women preparing for the end in Oxfodshire, planting flowers that will never grow and sitting in the garden drinking tea while they wait for the ground to be ripped apart under them. It’s a cosy catastrophe, with a much lower degree of looting and general chaos and anarchy than what I think would actually happen if you announced the world was going to end in six month’s time, but I found it rather charming. I don’t think Baxter quite pulls it off, but it’s in second place for me.

My pick of the short stories is Elizabeth Bear’s Tideline, which is a great example of how a small SF idea can turn into a lovely story. Lovely is the appropriate word, as it’s a heartwarming little tale of a shipwrecked war-machine, alone on a beach mourning her lost compatriots, and the human boy she meets and takes care of. The hints of worldbuilding fit around the well-drawn characters, filling out enough of the background to satisfy but leaving parts of it unknown, and Bear’s prose is probably the best of all the stories, bar maybe the Swanwick. It pulls off beautifully what Last Contact can’t quite do.

So I’d like the Best Short Story Hugo to go to Elizabeth Bear, but I won’t be upset if it goes to MacLeod or Baxter.

Other views:
Abigail Nussbaum mostly agrees with me, but doesn’t like Baxter as much. Nicholas Whyte doesn’t like the MacLeod at all, but agrees with my top pick. Karen Burnham agrees with my top two, but hasn’t read any of the others. John at SF Signal also isn’t fond of the Macleod, and likes the Resnick much more.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 2

Dreamers of the Day coverLet’s get one thing clear from the get-go: taken as a bundle, the stories in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 2 will almost certainly not be the best science fiction and fantasy stories of the year for anyone except Jonathan Strahan. Taste is too fickle a thing, and the acreage the book tries to encompass too great. As if to ram home the point, only six of the sf choices overlap with Dozois’ behemoth; only two from Rich Horton’s fantasy collection, and one from his sf book; there are two selections also in the Hartwell/Cramer fantasy book, and there’s no overlap at all with their sf volume. Strahan does get four Hugo nominees, two Nebula nominees, and two Sturgeon nominees, and his anthology is a good read, cover to cover, if that’s the only thing that matters to you; but the larger point indicated by the diversity of contents is that there are reasons beyond simple quality to read a Year’s Best. Strahan — while being quite clear that these are indeed his favourite stories of 2007 — acknowledges this in his introduction, saying that any Year’s Best is “an attempt by an informed reader to identify the best work published in a given year, to put it in context, and to sketch out where SF and fantasy might be going” (2). It’s an attempt, in other words, to provide a map; or, more aggrandizingly, to define a canon. Year’s Bests are one of the most visible and enduring ways in which the sf and fantasy genres memorialise themselves. They are a source to which historians will return.

And what will such historians conclude, on the basis of Strahan’s selections, about 2007? They will, I would imagine, be less interested than most of the book’s present-tense readers about whether it was a good year or a bad year, and more interested in the validity of Strahan’s core assertion about the twenty-first-century field. This assertion, arguably implicit in the decision to include sf and fantasy between one set of covers but made explicit in the introduction, is simply that the walls are breaking down. Strahan credits the change mostly to the ongoing expansion of the field, and the effect this has on how the genre talks to itself: “In effect, the direct dialogue from old to new works has been disrupted, and the nature of the dialogue has broadened enormously … SF and fantasy are broadening, changing, diverging” (2-3). Though he’s careful to note the limitations of grouping the two forms together, and reassure readers that there are traditional SF and fantasy stories in the book-to-come, it’s in the fluidity of the contemporary conversation that Strahan seems to be most interested, building on Gary Wolfe’s argument (I’m brutally paraphrasing “Evaporating Genres”) that the genres of the fantastic have to either live free or die hard: expand their discourse or stagnate.

So even without considering the story’s quality, it’s no surprise that Strahan opens with Ted Chiang’s “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate“, and points out that it’s a hybrid: time travel may be a classic science fiction theme, but stylistically the story’s ancestry is fantasy. A lot has (inevitably) already been said about this story, and I don’t intend to repeat it all; William Mingin’s review is the clearest enumeration of the story’s virtues that I’ve seen, but it’s also worth noting Abigail Nussbaum’s observation that it’s precisely the story’s mixed heritage that allows Chiang to approach one of time travel’s core issues from a fresh angle. The only thing I’d add is another measure of praise for Chiang’s technique, particularly the way in which he renders abstracts concrete (for example, the description of how the time gate works as akin to a secret passage in a palace), and for the way this allows him, as Mingin puts it, to “suggest how we should be and act”. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is beautifully gentle in its moralizing; on one level it’s about how we know the world, but it frames its debate in the most practical terms, such that what can and cannot be done is central, and how people act is the most meaningful measure of their character. Perhaps the only contemporary writer whose skill and thoroughness at working through an argument can match Chiang is Greg Egan, represented here by the purely science-fictional “Glory” [pdf]. I’ve written about it, or specifically about the brilliantly barmy opening set-piece, before; second time around it struck me as a bit more coherent, more integrated in its presentation of its core argument, namely that the underlying information of the universe is consistent and can be understood. So, for example, the information that makes up the story’s protagonists, Joan and Anne, can be transformed from human to alien; and in their alien form they can understand other aliens as naturally as they understand their own species; and the ancient mathematics they seek is described in a novel algebra but is still comprehensible; and the final theorem can be re-described by a feat of aerial acrobatics. This pleasing neatness notwithstanding, “Glory” still strikes me as a little too rickety to be first-rank Egan. While there’s something endearing about the blatant way the story is rigged to focus on purely intellectual questions (by, for example, hand-waving away the potential problem of sexual attraction), after those first few pages the glory of the mind isn’t quite conveyed with enough conviction to carry the story on its own, and there’s nothing to tie the mind and the heart together the way they’re interlocked in Chiang’s tale.

If Strahan is arguing that the part of a Year’s Best job that involves teasing out such influences and connections is as important as it has ever been, though, we should be able to find stories among his selections that sit in the same conversation as, say, Chiang and Egan: stories that circle the same issues, that are heirs to the same tradition. And we can. One example is Daryl Gregory’s marvelous, economical “Dead Horse Point”. In its exploration of the psychological consequences of the pursuit of intellectual satisfaction it echoes “Glory”, not to mention some of Egan’s earlier stories, although there’s no evidence of Egan’s sometimes-clinical approach. (Strahan identifies a Tiptree influence, which I can see in the outdoorsy setting, although the story itself is gentler than any Tiptree I’ve read.) In some ways, it’s little more than a character vignette: a woman receives a call from her girlfriend of years earlier, and travels to visit her and her brother; there is some reminiscing about old times, and some discussion of the present; and then a turning point is reached. The sfnal elements, too, are minimal: the girlfriend, Julia, suffers from a psychological abnormality that, so far as I know, doesn’t exist, but which is characterised as “the opposite of attention deficit disorder”, meaning that she has a tendency to disappear into fugue states for periods of time ranging between hours or months, focused utterly on solving whatever problem has snagged her attention. The current problem, which may be drawing Julia so deep into a fugue that she will never return, is a new interpretation of quantum mechanics, the implications of which — and the ways in which those implications are refracted by the actions of the trio — echo not just Egan, but also “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”. The balance in “Dead Horse Point”, though, is tilted more towards heart than head, which is enough to ensure that the story is in the end nothing but itself. Another story in the book, though, seems to owe an even clearer debt to Chiang; in fact, if you told me you’d read a story about the conflict between belief and reason, set in a world where creationists were proved right about the age of the Earth by carbon-dating in the mid-twentieth century, and I didn’t know better, Chiang would be my first guess for the author. In fact it’s Ted Kosmatka. Like “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, “The Prophet of Flores” derives its strength from its hybridity — in this case a science-fictional exploration of a fantastical conceit, rather than vice-versa — and though the pacing, among other things, is not as polished as it might be, the story’s portrait of life in a cosmologically alternate history is thorough and convincing. The protagonist is a boy who grows up to be a “paleometagenomicist” (a sort of cross between an anthropologist and a geneticist) and, as the title suggests, is ultimately sent to investigate the story’s novum — the discovery of the bones of the hobbits of Flores, which, by representing a challenge to the idea that all life was originally created by God, has the potential to send shock waves through this world’s society. Kosmatka’s execution of this pregnant conceit is notable first for its sensible handling of the faultlines between faith and evidence, and second because he finds a resolution which remains true to the parameters of the world established, but still manages to deliver a good old-fashioned conceptual breakthrough.

All four of the stories I’ve discussed so far have recognisable science fiction antecedents, even if two of them are not pure sf and one of them is only tenuously speculative; and none of them ever doubts that reason and logic are appropriate tools with which to try to understand the world, even if they are interested in the emotional consequences of that understanding. A story like Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk” is more in orbit around this cluster than a part of it, but displays a similar faith that the world can be grasped, albeit with business nous rather than pure rationality. “Kiosk” is your everyday tale of economic revolution, or the Third Transition for the Eastern European country in which it’s set (the first two, we are told, being the fall of communism and the trauma of peak oil), in which a small-time businessman acquires a high-grade cornucopia device and finds himself getting step by step deeper into what eventually becomes a full-blow revolutionary conspiracy. Along the way, there’s a lot of energetic, energising and funny talk — it’s a much more lively story than any of the four above — plus plenty of pithy encapsulations of the way the world is changing. The ultimate moral is that it’s not enough just to have a mechanical invention; you need a social invention to go with it, because one will ultimately be demanded if the technology is pervasive enough. “Kiosk” is certainly one of Sterling’s better stories of recent years, and the most complete dramatisation of a social change in this Year’s Best; but I don’t think it’s the best story about economics. I’d give that honour to Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics“, which is a less raggedy and ramshackle story, and impressive for the thoroughness with which it does exactly what it says on the tin. Formally, Abraham’s story is indeed a fairy tale, in which an admirable hero (“a man of few needs, tepid passions, and great kindness”) overcomes a series of challenges in order to live happily ever after. But there’s no magic, and in fact the setting is a version of our world (Cairo and Paris are mentioned), though not in an analogue of any single historical period I could confidently pin down. The challenges, which are set for Our Hero by a debauched local lord, have to do with the principle of exchange, and quickly become about more than mere physical goods, at which point they demonstrate every bit as much as “Kiosk” how much economic forces shape our lives. But Abraham’s story is told with a much lighter touch than Sterling’s, although both are charmingly logical at points, and offer the satisfaction of seeing smarts win out.

As I’ve hinted, you can argue half of the stories I’ve discussed so far — Chiang, Kosmatka, Abraham — as either science fiction or fantasy. Another example would be Susan Palwick’s “Sorrel’s Heart”, which is once more science fiction — set in a world where extreme mutation has become both rife and survivable, and where people born with their organs external to their body are relatively commonplace — and told in a fantastical tone. (The year’s other girl-with-her-heart-outside-her-body story, Rachel Swirsky’s “Heartstrung“, which inevitably shares some themes, can be found in Rich Horton’s Fantasy Best.) A relationship develops between the title character and a man, Quartz, whose abnormality is less visible; he is a sociopath, but decides that because he can see how his desires hurt Sorrel, he doesn’t actually need to act them out. Their relationship is an abnormal kind of normal; caring and coping and complementing are at the heart of it. Palwick’s touch is sure, and if the use of the heart as a symbol becomes a little bit too explicit at the end (we didn’t need to be told that Quartz’ child becomes his heart) there are powerful moments along the way. But you can also put her story, or Abraham’s, into a fantasy conversation rather than an sf one, by heading into fairy tale and folk tale, and looking at the contrast between Abraham’s story and an ostensibly more traditional fairytale retelling such as Holly Black’s “The Coat of Stars”. The tale of a gay costume maker, a troubled visit to his redneck home, and his attempts to rescue a childhood friend from the clutches of the fairy queen — yes, the double meaning is both conscious and worked through the story — by a succession of increasingly elaborate coats as gifts, it’s a thoroughly unsentimental offering and, in some ways, not that much more traditional than Abraham’s story. Although there is magic, the presentation of it is notably un-magical, and in fact I suspect the complete lack of ethereality is the only reason the happy ending is bearable. You could also look at the two witch stories in the book, by Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Hand; both are to an extent engaged in dialogue with the conventions of fairy tale, although I’m not sure that the image of a witch as an evil old woman, which both stories clearly want to bounce off, is as pervasive as it used to be. This is not a problem for Hand’s story, which has a lot of other resonance to juice it up; the small-town setting is evoked with skill, but the story’s real triumph is that it manages to talk about the preservation of the environment — in this case, represented by three old trees — from the depredations of business without getting drippy. The magic is real and fierce — the sort of thing that is felt as much as seen — which makes the tinge of wish-fulfillment inherent in the premise bearable.

The feeling that the story might not actually add much to the ongoing dialogue is more of a problem for Gaiman’s “The Witch’s Headstone”, which is as much about Good and Bad as Hand’s story, but is surprisingly clumsy — featuring such convenient environmental responses as the fact that, immediately after the protagonist is captured, what had been a fine autumn day turns gray — although perhaps some of its other clumsiness can be attributed to the fact that it’s an extract from a novel, and is thus filled with hanging references. Still following the trail of a fantasy conversation, from Chiang’s (quite literal) portal-quest story you could skip to a piece like Alex Irvine’s “Wizard’s Six”, which makes more use of traditional high fantasy gamepieces — formal language, unironic wizards and dragon-slaying — than any other story in the book, and goes to some lengths to frame its narrative as one of moral questioning. (Although unlike Chiang’s story, the protagonist is probably not a good match for many of the people reading about him.) Or you could go to another hybrid form, alternate history, and look at Chris Roberson’s “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small”, an entry in his interesting Celestial Empire series. This time around I think the detail of the research is more impressive than the detail of the prose, but like “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” the story is structured as a series of philosophical challenges, in which an old man leads a young man through an argument, in an attempt to get him to see the wider world.

The concept for The Graveyard Book — from which Gaiman’s story is taken — is, of course, is itself another example of fantasy dialogue, in this case with Kipling’s Jungle Book, a work substantially older than anything most of the sf stories try to engage with. (The exception is Charles Stross’ cacophonously unfunny Wodehouse-homage/parody “Trunk and Disorderly”, but frankly the less said about that the better.) Fantasy has a rather longer tradition to draw on than sf, so it’s not at all a surprise to find other similar examples in Strahan’s selections; such as Theodora Goss’s decision to respond to “Kubla Khan” in “Singing of Mount Abora”. In doing so she is clearly aiming for something of the same intensity of image and feeling — an approach summed up by the observation that “beauty was not a quality but a state of being” — but although there are many things to like about the story, particularly the dance between segments set in Xanadu and those set in contemporary Boston, for me at least the end result is (oddly, like Egan’s story) more beautiful in its conception than its execution. Individual moments, such as the matter-of-fact way the narrator tells us that she’s been to Xanadu and Coleridge got the details wrong, work wonderfully as a way of asserting the importance of individual imagination; but ultimately the story as a whole is too dependent to truly live. More generally, stories like Goss’ and Gaiman’s, and indeed most of the fantasy stories in this collection, seem to point to a difference in the way genre dialogue works, compared with science fiction, specifically that fantasy stories don’t seem to draw as directly on its contemporary tradition in the way that sf does. That may be changing — look at the response to Perdido Street Station (at least if you read it as fantasy), and to a lesser extent the response to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — but it still seems more common to see direct inspiration (such as Accelerando leading to Postsingular) in sf, and there’s more of a sense of common purpose between Egan/Chiang/Gregory/Kosmatka than between any of the more traditional fantasies collected here.

If this isn’t just observer bias, it may be something to do with the fact that fantasy has a wider range of established narratives to draw on. The danger is that stories that aim to deploy a formula end up mastered by them. Hence stories like Black’s, or to an extent like Elizabeth Bear’s “Orm the Beautiful“, which is an almost flawlessly executed story about a last dragon, but is still a last dragon story. The twist is that said dragon is emerging into the contemporary world; the resulting negotiation with mundane concerns is witty, and the conception of the dragon society is original and impressively fully-formed for a story of this length, but it never feels as though it desperately needed to be told. Similarly, Michael Swanwick’s exodus/development-of-language myth mash-up is impressively textured, obviously knowing in several ways, and better than most examples of his short fiction that I’ve read, but can’t quite overcome the (necessary?) familiarity of its basic plot, in which a girl is kidnapped, an honourable man rescues her, and a treacherous man causes trouble. None of these stories are without merit, but next to, for example, Abraham’s twist on the fairy-tale formula, they feel too well-worn. I’ve praised M. Rickert’s “Holiday” before, and its skillful insinuation of unease into the narrator’s apparent attempt to be straight with us retains its power third time around, but it’s worth noting that it’s effective as a ghostly horror story not just because of its general grimness of tone, but because it successfully misdirects us as to where the horror is going to come from. The presence or absence of that sort of surprise, I think, makes or breaks any story that’s operating within a particular form. It’s why I think that, say, Nancy Kress’s “By Fools Like Me” is not her best work; the setting is almost generically post-Crash — global warming, disease, birth rate way down, garbled religious teachings — and what the characters stand for starts to overwhelm who they actually are. It’s also why I think Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact” is admirable in concept but not quite deft enough in execution. I’m still a little surprised that it earned Baxter a Hugo nomination. Some of the detail is nice (particularly the idea that the announcement of a universal apocalypse would be made on Radio 4, and that the schedulers would be thoughtful enough to make the entirely pointless gesture of scheduling it for after the watershed), and the total impersonality of the catastrophe is as chilling as Baxter ever is. But some of the rest — particularly the guff about establishing a shelter to survive the end of the universe for about 30 seconds, just to eke out that little bit more knowledge, and the intuitive decryption of alien messages — is trying too hard. It might work in a longer story, but here I can feel my buttons being deliberately pushed. I don’t object to similar button-pushing in Ken MacLeod’s “Jesus Christ, Reanimator”, which depicts a 21st-century second coming, simply because the story is so funny and inventive, from the opening image of the Heavenly host being welcomed with an F-16 fighter escort to the concept of Jesus’ blog (and his “devastating put-downs in the comments”), or Jesus’ own admission that reading Tipler helped him understand how the universe works. It’s a story that ends in the only way it could, but has an awful lot of fun getting there, and is probably MacLeod’s strongest short-form work to date.

What’s left after all this discussion is the set of stories which, for one reason or another, I couldn’t fit into a neat discursive category. In some cases, that’s because the premise seems truly original; the notable example here is Peter S Beagle’s “The Last and Only, Or, Mr Moscowitz Becomes French”, in which nationality is, literally, a disease. But it’s an originality whose charm passes me by, as with so much Beagle; “Mr Moscowitz” seems too fable-like to be satisfying as a rational fantasy (for example, nobody talks about potential treatment of Mr Moscowitz) and yet not fable-like enough to achieve much power (the scattershot targeting of everything that comes within range — law, celebrity, marriage — ends up feeling ineffective). It feels like it should be a story about identity, yet because of the totalizing nature of the change, it has frustratingly little to say there (certainly in comparison to a story like “Dead Horse Point”); yet it is not simply beautiful enough to absorb. In contrast, there’s “The Dreaming Wind”, which is both unlike any other fantasy in the anthology and successful, although perhaps not exactly new ground for its author. “There is no way,” the narrator says near the start, “to encompass in language the inexhaustible creative energy and crackpot genius that was the Dreaming Wind”. But Jeffrey Ford gives it the old college try. The dreaming wind sweeps through the town of Lipora once a year, when summer and autumn “are in bed together” (a lovely phrase), bringing in its wake a rush of surreality. People and landscape become jumbled and strange, and only rearrange themselves when the wind has passed. It’s an event that serves as a demonstration of Ford’s tremendous gift for invention, and the story is worth reading for that alone. But then “The Dreaming Wind” becomes something more: one year, the wind does not come, and as so often happens the absence of a feared thing becomes scarier than the thing itself; at least it turns out not to be the expected blessing. Eventually, the townsfolk put on a play, telling a story that explains why the dreaming wind was and why it is no more; when the magic vanishes, in other words, it is recreated in story, and magic and story might almost as well be the same thing. Tony Daniel’s “In the Valley of the Garden” is, like “Glory”, taken from The New Space Opera, although like “Glory” I’m not sure I could actually call it that; a story about someone who’s survived a space opera, maybe. Strahan places it immediately after Rickert’s story, and initially the change from the intensely personal supernatural horror of that story to the still-personal but much more expansive and adventurous sf of Daniel provides the sharpest whiplash in the book; but the story outstays its welcome somewhat. Interestingly, it echoes Swanwick’s story in several ways: both stories play with sf/fantasy texturing; they have similar villains (Daniel’s aliens are described as “parasites, feeding on order”, which makes them sound awfully like Swanwick’s language-eating demons); and in “Valley”, as in “Urdumheim”, inventiveness is ultimately tamed by a conventional undercarriage.

Strahan closes his anthology with a story by possibly the only contemporary short story writer as near-universally acclaimed as Ted Chiang; but Kelly Link’s “The Constable of Abel” seems to me a less secure anchor, not just because I find it less engaging as a story than my pick for Link story of the year, “Light” (I’m able to believe that Strahan disagrees), but because “Light” seems so much better-placed to illustrate Strahan’s core argument about the breaking down of barriers. Like “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, it fantasticates a science fictional conceit (pocket universes), but it does so in a provocatively different way. “The Constable of Abel”, by contrast, is set in a more straightforward fantasy world than is usual for Link, and has a more traditional narrative architecture, built around a mother and daughter con-artist team who leave one town and move to another after the mother kills the local constable. There’s a lot of talk about death, which only Link’s narrative voice manages to avoid making morbid; but it seems more of a struggle than usual, as though the demands of plot cut down the characteristic interplay. Though there are still Linkish touches — such as the way people keep ghosts, which are pocket-sized and need blood to live — under such bright light they start to seem unconvincing, rather than illuminatingly weird. And the final revelation, much as Link tries to spin it into a new riff, can’t stop the story being a rather wearying note on which to end an otherwise good anthology.

But what “The Constable of Abel” does have going for it is that it’s more typical of the direction Link’s work has been going in; and even if you like fewer of them than me, I think it’s hard to deny that Strahan’s selections capture something of the fluidity of the contemporary genre, and range widely over the territory. Of the handful of omissions I think really weaken the collection, for instance, I can see that “By Fools Like Me” already covers the post-ecotastrophe terrain that Holly Phillips’ “Three Days of Rain” evokes so wonderfully; and while I’d have taken Rachel Swirsky’s “Dispersed by the sun, Melting in the Wind“, I can see that the clear debt to classic end-of-the-world stories that “Last Contact” brings is interesting in itself; and while I find the omission of David Moles’ “Finisterra” baffling, I suppose Tony Daniel’s story supplies the heavy-worldbuilding sf adventure. As for the fourth story I’d have picked, Ian R MacLeod’s “The Master Miller’s Tale”, its industrial magic isn’t particularly well represented elsewhere in the book, but it’s a novella, and even in Night Shade’s somewhat cramped layout that demands a certain number of pages. You may have noticed that all my omissions — and all the stories Strahan did pick — are, however they might colonise other narratives, solidly genre stories, drawn from genre sources (for a different kind of fluidity, drawing on newer markets or non-genre markets, you’ll want Horton’s volumes, or Best American Fantasy, I suspect — and in fact, see Abigail Nussbaum’s review here); but if Strahan’s self-appointed task is to map the field of speculative fiction, rather than the mode in the broadest sense, then that makes perfect sense. And I find myself in agreement with the sense of the field that this book promotes: which is to say that I like this map.

Two Reviews Elsewhere

I’m having the good fortune to be going through a period of reading good books, reviews of two of which have recently gone up elsewhere. First: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, at Strange Horizons:
Dreamers of the Day cover

And then every so often comes a reminder that Agnes is dead. The effect of this, which I take to be deliberate, is to break the immersion associated with historical fiction. Agnes’s times are not for us to live in—they are for us to watch (as, later, our times are for her), and to read Dreamers of the Day is to take part in a game of knowingness with Agnes and her author: they know we know they know we know, and so on. So we see Agnes in conversation with Lawrence, and we interpret what is said according to our knowledge; later, Agnes discusses the events with Karl Weilbacher—a German with whom she has struck up a friendship—and he provides his own interpretation, which is then on the table for us to interpret once more. As a formal device for relating the politics of 1921 to those of our times this is elegant and often extraordinarily effective, the more so because the tale is of sufficient complexity—and aware enough of the limits of the possible—that it cannot be summarized as a lesson. (Agnes herself tries and fails at the end of the novel.)

On the basis of this review, yesterday I got involved in an email debate about whether or not a novel with a dead narrator should count as fantasy, which involved mutual incomprehension on both sides. (Although I have the satisfaction of having the author on my side.) For me it’s as simple as saying the narrator’s position is impossible, and that it implies the existence of a secondary (fantastic) world, whether or not the author chooses to explore it. If the author doesn’t choose to explore it, it may not be very satisfying to consider the work in question as fantasy — there may be other, better ways to approach the book — but that doesn’t mean it’s not fantasy. In fact, in Dreamers of the Day Russell does spend some time in the afterlife world, although it’s towards the end of the book, so I didn’t want to talk about it in the review; but even if she hadn’t, my knowledge that the narrator was dead would have made the book a fantasy for me. And that had an effect on my reading experience: for example, it made the moments where Agnes (the narrator) remembers hearing the voice of her dead mother more ambiguous since, after all, Agnes herself proves that communication from beyond the grave is possible.

The second review is of Stephen Baxter’s latest novel, Flood, in the Internet Review of SF; as I understand their subscription options you should be able to access the review for free even if you’re not a subscriber, unless you’ve already looked at an article from the current issue this week. A quote:
Flood cover

In order to make something as slow-moving as climate change storyable, you either need to make your characters live longer, as, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson does in Blue Mars, or you need to make the change shorter and sharper, which is the route Robinson takes in Science in the Capital and the route Baxter takes, to a much greater degree, here. (Of course you can set stories within an ecologically devastated future without deploying either of these strategies, and many writers have; but they then stop being stories about the process of climate change, and become stories about living with it.) The big advantage to Baxter’s strategy is that it tremendously intensifies the problem, particularly in the early stages, creating a crucible within which the dramas caused by a changing environment—mass migration, for one—can play out on a human timescale. Stern currents of class, race, gender, religion and evolutionary biology all swirl through Flood, driving and shaping the drama. (The religious echoes, in particular, are well handled.) But once you’ve introduced that sort of acceleration, if you’re a writer like Baxter you have to follow it through to its conclusion; and in this case that means shifting modes. So Flood skyhooks us into a story that—while still predominantly literal—is stranger and more emblematic than it at first appears.

As this indicates, one of the things that really interests me about the book is how it negotiates between two forms of writing about its subject: the opening is very literal, realistic, climate-change-ish stuff, whereas the later parts of the novel are more extreme and strange. But that’s only the most impressive aspect, for me, of what is quite possibly Baxter’s best novel this decade (Evolution runs it close), and certainly the best new science fiction novel I’ve read so far this year. I’m hoping to organize a Swiftly-style discussion of this book, to look at it in more detail.

Wanted

James MacAvoy is Wesley Gibson, total loser, whose life is changed when he meets Angelina Jolie (Fox) in a drugstore. She tells him that a) his dad was a famous assassin b) his dad is dead and c) the man who killed him is standing over there in the cereal aisle with a gun. Then there is a big shootout with guns and explosions, and a car chase where Angelina drives a fast and sexy car with her feet while shooting out of the sunroof.

That’s pretty much the tone of the film. Director Timur Bekmambetov’s previous films were the Russian blockbusters Night Watch and Day Watch, and now Hollywood has let him loose with a larger budget and an R-rating to see what he can do. The result is a film which, while I am dubious about some of the morality and misogynistic overtones, can’t help but sweep me along with overblown stunts and serious violence.

Wesley’s life is changed by his meeting with the Fraternity of Assassins, where he discovers his panic attacks, which he takes as yet another sign of his loserdom, are actually an indication of his incredible reflexes and shooting ability. Guns as martial arts is not a new idea, but here it’s taken to extremes, with the assassins able to bend bullets, shoot other bullets out of the air, and generally ignore the laws of physics.

Once he’s over the initial shock of meeting a society of trained killers, Wesley tells his boss to fuck off, smacks his friend in the face with a keyboard, and takes this opportunity to become a man and learn how to kill people. This undercurrent of machismo runs through the whole film. Wesley isn’t just taking control of his life, he’s becoming a man, a lone wolf, fulfilling his destiny. To become an assassin first involves getting punched in the face a lot by Marc Warren until he admits he doesn’t know who he really is, then realising that what he wants is to follow in his father’s footsteps. (Not that this method of training is portrayed as a universal good, as it’s implied that it sent at least one of the Fraternity insane.)

Now we need a rationale so that we can have the main character go around shooting people in the head and not think he’s an amoral murderous dick, and it comes in the form of the Loom of Fate, which spits out the names of people who need to die. Yes, they may murder people in cold blood, but they do it because the loom tells them we’ll be better off for it. It’s taking one life to save one thousand, a message hammered home by the story Fox tells of a child who watched her father die when the Fraternity failed to kill the murderer in time, and in case you weren’t paying attention they spell it out to you that she’s talking about herself. All the targets of assassination are businessmen in suits and limos, often smoking cigars, and it’s a surprise when they don’t start cackling and stroking their cats.

Criticising Wanted for lacking in subtlety is probably missing the point. Shortly after that scene, we have a stunt where Wesley performs an assassination by getting his car to fly through the air and shooting his target through the sunroof, and there’s a certain joy in watching them stage preposterous stunts with the only possible reasoning being “because it will look cool”. Bekmambetov has a familiar style from his earlier work, filled with slow-motion and quick cutting, and there are some really spectacular scenes in Wanted – a train derailment, Wesley on a roaring rampage of revenge, the car chase early on. On the level of brainless gosh-wow action, it’s a good film.

And yet I can’t help but poke at the problems with it. There are parallels between the character of Anton from Night Watch and Wesley Gibson – both are nerdy loser-types and not your typical action leading man despite MacAvoy’s newfound six-pack, who discover they have supernatural skills and get involved with a mysterious organisation with shadowy leadership. But while Anton is sympathetic when caught up in the plans of others, it’s hard to feel any real sympathy for Wesley and what little there is comes from James MacAvoy’s convincing fear as he gets brought into the Fraternity. It’s all so very masculine, and out of the three female characters, one is Wesley’s fat tyrant of a boss, and one is his cheating harridan of a girlfriend, with Jolie’s Fox as the only female assassin we ever seen, sharing a curiously sexless kiss with Wesley only to piss off his ex.

The other problem is that the plot twists are not so much twists as gentle turns you can see coming from quite a long way off, and that includes the ending. Again, though, you don’t go and see Wanted for the plot, and you don’t watch it for the characterization or the acting. You watch this film if you want to see exploding rats, cars driven into trains, and a man shooting people while his gun is embedded in someone else’s brains, and it turns out that sometimes that is what I want to watch even if it leaves a faintly nasty taste in the mouth.

The Goosle

One of the reasons I wanted to get my hands on the Ellen Datlow-edited Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy was Margo Lanagan’s “The Goosle” — not just because I usually admire Lanagan’s stories, but because the reactions to this story, as tracked on Lanagan’s blog, have been interesting. They have been generally enthusiastic (or enthusiastic but nervous about how Lanagan might react), and occasionally bizarre, but a number have had an undercurrent of uneasiness: Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, for instance, says that though he “appreciated the creativity and inventiveness on display,” he’s “not sure the viciousness created a disturbing experience rather than an off-putting one”; and in general the descriptions emphasize how dark the tale is.

And now Dave Truesdale has reviewed the anthology, as one of his “Off on a Tangent” columns, and attacked “The Goosle”. (It’s interesting that this column appears under the SF Site banner, rather than as an online column for F&SF, although it’s not the first of the columns to do so.) Before I go any further, in case you haven’t followed any of the links above, a brief review of the premise: the story is a sequel to a version of “Hansel and Gretel” in which Gretel (here Kirtle) didn’t escape, and Hansel was found wandering by a man called Grinnan. The two now travel together, with Grinnan regularly and sexually abusing Hansel (“goosle” is one of his names for the boy; in the original “silly goose” is what the witch says as she demonstrates her oven to Gretel), and as “The Goosle” opens they pay a return visit to the witch, here called the “mudwife” (one of Lanagan’s common linguistic tricks is to corrupt existing word; here we’re obviously meant to think “midwife”, and there is a suggestion that the mudwife may act in that capacity for some locals). Here’s a sample of Truesdale’s judgement:

Del Rey ought to get a long, loud, wakeup call… and quick. If the author, editor, and publisher can nuance this story, massage it, spin it to where the objectionable inclusion of child rape for shock value alone is acceptable, then there are absolutely no boundaries, for any reason, anywhere — and we can expect more of the same. This sets a precedent, if not challenged. And again, what audience were the editor and publisher expecting to hit here? Several stories seem written just for a younger crowd, so then what can be the reasoning behind also presenting a fairy tale retelling with repeated instances of child rape for shock value?

To sum up, his charges are: that the story is inappropriate given what he judges to be the likely audience for the anthology; that the abuse is included for “shock value” and crosses the bounds of decency, specifically in a scene where “young Hansel thinks he might even like what is being done to him”; and that it adds nothing to the story specifically or to “the canon of Hansel and Gretel”.

To take these points in order: Truesdale’s perception of the anthology as being marketed, at least in part, at young adult readers seems to rest entirely on the fact that several protagonists, including that of Lanagan’s story, are young adults. This strikes me as almost so daft as to not be worth engaging with: you’d think that the presence of a story as confrontational as Lanagan’s would be a fairly clear marker that young adults aren’t the target audience. But apparently not. There is the grain of a sensible point here, in that if the anthology can be mistaken for a young adult anthology then a reader might be confronted with material they’re not fully equipped to handle; but having read several of the other stories in the book, and looking at the way the book is presented, I think it’s unlikely anyone would actually make that mistake.

On “shock value”: here’s the scene that (I presume) Truesdale was thinking of with reference to Hansel enjoying being abused. As context, it occurs after arriving at the mudwife’s house; Grinnan and the mudwife have in fact kicked Hansel outdoors so that they can get busy.

I try dozing, but it’s not comfortable among the roots there, and there is still noise from the cottage — now it is Grinnan working himself up, calling her all the things he calls me, all the insults. You love it, he says, with such deep disgust. You filth, you filthy cunt. And she oh‘s below, not at all like me, but as if she really does love it. I lie quiet, thinking: Is it true, that she loves it? That I do? And if it’s true, how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don’t?

Earlier this week, Victoria Hoyle was debating where she draws the line in the sand with regard to the content of fiction. It’s a valid question, and it’s not unreasonable for Truesdale to note that this story crosses his line. The problem with his critique is that he never goes any deeper than assertion – his discussion of “The Goosle” is six paragraphs long and uses the phrase “shock value” six times, which leaves the residual impression that it is the simple fact of the subject matter, rather than how it is handled, that is giving Truesdale trouble.

But this sort of thing really happens, which makes it a valid subject for fiction, and for me the handling is good enough that the story does not cross my line. In the context of the rest of the story the depiction of abuse does not strike me as exploitative, or sensationalist, or cheap. To be honest, given the hollow pain evident in that last sentence — “how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don’t?” — even in that single paragraph I think there’s enough evidence to conclude that Lanagan is approaching her topic with some care, which is to say that it strikes me — as Jeffrey Ford puts it in the comments to a post by Datlow linking to the review — as part of a portrait of how damaging, confusing, and frightening abuse can be for a child. The entire story is filled with unsettling images and situations, from the very first glimpse of the mudwife’s house — it’s clear that it’s the house of bread and cake from the fairytale, but what Hansel sees is “the dreadful roof sealed with drippy white mud … you are frightened it will choke you, but you cannot stop eating” – and it’s the accumulative weight of disorder that gives the story its power. Because of its subject matter, the story reminded me somewhat of M. Rickert’s “Holiday“; with reference to that story Jonathan Strahan says, in his year’s best, that “the best fiction challenges us in some way. The frankly disturbing dark tale that follows … was one of the most challenging published this year”, and in a year’s time it’s not hard to imagine someone saying the same of “The Goosle”. Both stories are asking us to try to understand psychologically damaged individuals. It’s true that Lanagan is (often, though not always) more direct than Rickert: where Rickert is suggestive, Lanagan tells us how Grinnan gets Hansel drunk to make him an easier mark, how Hansel was cut and bleeding after the first time Grinnan raped him, how “The price of the journey … is being spiked in the arse”. Of course it is unsettling to read, we might say. It’s meant to be. But this economically confrontational style suits Lanagan’s purpose: it makes it impossible to ignore what has been done to Hansel, and impossible to ignore the issues it raises.

Which leaves the question of what the story adds to our understanding of the Hansel and Gretel ur-story. In some ways, I think this is the wrong question to ask. As Abigail Nussbaum said elsewhere earlier this week, a reasonable way to evaluate a piece of fiction is to ask whether it does something new, or does something well; and if there have been dark extrapolations of Hansel and Gretel before (though I, at least, have not read so many as to be bored by them) then Lanagan’s is done seriously and well, and that is enough to justify its existence. For example: in the original, the background calamity is famine, which resonates in obvious ways with the gingerbread house and the witch’s proclivities; in Lanagan’s story, the land is ravaged by plague, which resonates equally obviously with the moral depravity of the adult characters. In the original, there is a neat, happy ending; in “The Goosle”, although Hansel does eventually find his way home, to do so he has to witness the most “obvious and ongoing” act of evil he has ever encountered, and when he gets home, his family has been killed by the plague. The moral order that structures the most commonly-read version of “Hansel and Gretel” is entirely absent in “The Goosle” — as Truesdale notes, it is ultimately the mudwife, not Hansel, who kills Grinnan — but that absence is surely part of the story’s point, and that it may have been done before does not diminish its impact here. Indeed, Hansel ultimately avenges Grinnan: an act which is both just (for what has been done to Grinnan is in itself horrific) and disturbing (for we can’t be completely sure that Hansel is not to some tiny degree saddened by his abuser’s death). Hansel is alternately at the mercy of the world, and ignored by it, and “The Goosle” is a tragedy.

There is also one significant way in which the story doesn’t differ from the original, which is that in both cases the witch is basically evil. In the flashbacks we get to Hansel’s original captivity, it becomes apparent that her interest in the boy, like Grinnan’s, is in part sexual — she is still hungry to eat him, but instead of feeling his finger to determine whether he is ripe, she feels his penis. And in the moments before Hansel ultimately kills her, she is described in ugly terms: “She has her back to me, her bare dirty white back, her baggy arse and thighs. If she weren’t doing what she’s doing, that would be horror enough, how everything is wet and withered and hung with hair, how everything shakes”. It’s also something that makes “The Goosle” interesting as a Margo Lanagan story, a way of evaluating the work that Truesdale doesn’t even consider. (There is nothing in his review about Lanagan’s skill with description or imagery, which is as evident here as in most of her other work.) The depiction of the mudwife put me strongly in mind of the last Lanagan story I read, “She-Creatures”, which appeared in Eclipse One. If that story has a folk antecedent I didn’t recognise it — the story is of three night-workmen being attacked by the titular creatures. But as in “The Goosle”, women are figured as terrifying and horrible — although in ways that have to do with their appearance as sexual beings than with their age – and as in “The Goosle”, sex and hunger are inextricably linked.

I originally read “She-Creatures” as an exercise in the blackest of black humour: for the narrator and his macho companions, the most terrible monsters imaginable are women who want to have sex with them. In “The Goosle”, there is no doubt that the mudwife really is both terrible and monstrous; but considering the two stories in conjunction, it’s a little scary to see how easily caricatures of women can be figured as, well, scary. I don’t think it’s an accident that in both stories, our perceptions of the women are entirely filtered through male characters who clearly do not see the targets of their gaze as full human beings, either through prejudice or inexperience. And in the case of “The Goosle” — given the familiarly misogynist positioning of women in many of Grimm’s fairytales – it adds another layer to what is already a fearsomely memorable tale.

UPDATE: See also these.

Stand on Zanzibar

Superpowers UK coverThe plot: probably the least interesting aspect of the whole book, but here you go. There are two main threads, developing from the lives of two room-mates in 2010 New York, both of which involves first-world intervention in third-world nations. Norman House, VP at General Technics, ends up managing a huge investment in the (fictional) ex-colonial African nation of Beninia, at the behest of the ailing president; meanwhile, Donald Hogan, who works as an information synthesizer for the government, is “activated”, brainwashed with super-action-spy-skills, and sent to the (equally fictional) South-East Asian island nation Yatakang, where the government has announced they have the capability to create genetically enhanced supermen. Surrounding this narrative is a penumbra of vignettes, extracts from books, song lyrics, transcripts of videos, and much else, often but not always related to the main action in some way, which serve to flesh out the world.

What they thought then, part one: M. John Harrison, New Worlds 186 (January 1969):

… an application of the Dos Passos technique to the speculative field, a massive collage of a book that offers a broad fictional extrapolation from current events. Brunner presents as his protagonist an unbalanced society, consumer oriented and consuming itself to death. Violence and the special poverties of utopia set the tone; race riots; genetic control, and an East-West confrontation are balanced by ephemeral close-ups of personal frustration. Admass manipulators attempting to peg the status quo demolish human dignity from above while guerilla-action and anarchy attack it from below. This is a well-conceived book — a satisfyingly complete vision — marred by a lack of metaphor. Brunner is an inventive writer; his ability to theorise and document a feasible future is undeniable. But his success in evoking that future through images is limited. And his solution of the violence problem, though clever, is superfluous — it might have been more effective simply to state the problem.

What they thought then, part two: It won the Hugo in 1969, beating Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, Nova by Samuel R Delany, Past Master by RA Lafferty, and The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak.

Commentary, part one: Harrison is surely right about the completeness of Stand on Zanzibar‘s future being its most satisfying aspect; as is the way in any multi-threaded novel, not every thread is equally interesting all of them time, but every thread in is interesting at some point. The sheer number of trends extrapolated is staggering, and not just because some of the predictions seem spookily accurate, but because they’re integrated in a way that makes them seem part of the same society, and because Brunner is quite bold in connecting his present to his future — there’s even a complete history of fashion, at one point. I’m not sure, though, that the balance is completely satisfactory — I would have liked to believe that the world was the true character, say, but Hogan and House kept getting in the way — and I’m not sure that I buy Harrison’s take on the ending, which is surely powerful precisely because the solution it identifies is beyond the reach of the characters to grasp.

I haven’t read any of the other novels on that year’s Hugo shortlist, but it strikes me as a worthy winner.

The structure: There are four types of chapter, which largely do what they say, although there is some fluidity of material and style between different types. “Context” provides, typically, an extract from a book, or some other document, or a transcript of something or other, which explains the background of this 2010. “This Happening World” is about tracking the real-time of the world, and mixes thing up: a couple of lines of dialogue, an advertising slogan, a couple of lines from an article of some kind. “Tracking with Closeups” are the character vignette chapters, minor characters who may appear later in the main Hogan/House plot, or who may just be glancingly affected by some aspect of it. And “Continuity” is the meat of the story. As many will tell you (the detractors, cheerfully so), the style is more or less lifted from John Dos Passos’ USA; but for obvious infodump-related reasons, it’s a style extraordinarily well-suited to science fiction (and to this type of science fiction), and Brunner makes good use of it. It’s a steal for honorable purpose.

Vocabulary, a selection: Zecks (executives); Codders (men); Bleeding (swearword); Sheeting (ditto); Mucker (someone run amok); Block (never quite worked this one out); Shiggy (sort of a professionally single woman); Afram (African American); Hole (swearword, replaces “hell”); prowlie (police car); orbiting (getting high). Some of this works, some of it doesn’t. While the thought behind, say, “bleeding” is good — it’s replaced words like “bastard” and “bugger”, which are now considered purely descriptive without stigma attached to them, while hemophilia, as a heritable disease, is something to be ashamed of — I could never quite hear anyone saying it with the necessary force. In general I admired Brunner’s attempts at stylistic diversity, without thinking all of them equally successful.

What they thought a bit later: Brian Aldiss, p 367 of Trillion Year Spree (1986):

This sort of unlikely and unpleasant melodrama militates against the lively intellectual dance going on elsewhere, and eventually overwhelms it. Before that, Brunner conducts a teach-in on modern moralities, aided by Chad Mulligan, a sort of hippie philosopher. As with all Propter-figures, as with Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw, Mulligan wearies, being an author mouthpiece. He puts us all to rights and even out-talks Shalmaneser. The book becomes too long. … But it is an interesting experiment, because it marks a stage along the road, midway between pulp and social commentary.

Commentary, part two: I don’t disagree with Aldiss’ assessment of the way House/Hogan’s story gradually becomes overpowering (see above), but I thought Chad Mulligan livened up the book considerably, something I emphatically cannot say about the Heinleinian equivalents. Perhaps it’s because I never did feel he was an author mouthpiece, at least not in the sense that I believed Brunner believed everything he had Mulligan say, or that I was expected to believe it; in the sense that Mulligan was a way of spinning out notions in front of an audience, maybe. Perhaps, also, it’s because I feel that Mulligan gets to put his finger on the heart of the book when he asks Shalmaneser what it would take for the computer to believe in Beninia. Suspension of disbelief is a key question for any book that positions itself anywhere along the utopia/dystopia line: what would it take for us to believe in the possibility of a better world, or better people?

Predictions, part one: accurate. Implanted contraceptives. Hyperactive media. Gay marriage. TiVo. Genetic modification (and industrial pharma, to an extent). Privacy, or lack thereof, as a key social issue. Puffa jackets. Globalisation.

Genre descendents: Big chunks of cyberpunk; maybe The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson; Counting Heads by David Marusek; River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

Predictions, part two: inaccurate. The reliance on big central computers. The absence of peak oil and climate change. Continuing cold war-esque paranoia. The introduction of eugenics laws to control population growth. Sexual mores.

On shiggies: I have to say, I didn’t find the gender roles nearly as outdated or troubling as I’d been led to expect, which is not to say the book is unproblematic in this area. On the plus side, the shiggies — essentially the free love movement extrapolated into a whole social class — were depicted, so far as I noticed, without a trace of disapproval, and there were numerous female characters in prominent and powerful roles (not least the head of General Technics). What was missing, though, was a sense of balance, which in a way is a microcosm of my reservations about the novel’s overall structure, which is to say that although lots of female characters are mentioned, and have speaking parts, none of them are central in the way that Hogan, House and Mulligan are. Similarly, I’d have expected there to be male shiggies as well as female shiggies, and I didn’t notice any.

What they think now, part one: Adam Roberts, p.248 of his Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006):

Other titles from the decade now seem less significant, despite being praised extravagantly in their own day. The British author John Brunner’s (1934-1995) Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is a lengthy disquisition layered over a sort of spy plot, set in a monstrously overpopulated world. But its choppy, “experimental” style, lifted directly from the work of the American Modernist John Dos Passos (1896-1970) seems second-hand and over-boiled, and the premise of the novel has a phlogistonic lack of contemporary bite (overpopulation had not brought the world to a standstill by the start of the twenty-first century, and will not do so by the start of the twenty-second either). Of course, Brunner was not alone in thinking his premise sharply relevant: many writers in the 1960s and 1970s adopted positions of Malthusian gloominess on the subject of overpopulation; a better treatment of the theme than Brunner’s (better because rooted in a Pulp terseness rather than a High Modernist prolixity) is Harry Harrison’s (b.1925) Make Room! Make Room! (1966).

What they think now, part two: Geoff Ryman, in SFX 168 (April 2008) [pdf]:

Every page has both a great SF idea and an emotional twist to the story. Its technique is kaleidoscopic … This wouldn’t work if Brunner wasn’t so good at different voices. This age’s hip commentator, Chad Mulligan, is quoted from at length. To an extent he’s Brunner’s mouthpiece (and a great way to info-dump) but he also convinces as a radical and original thinker … The world feels pretty much like now — which is when it’s set, not in 1968, the year it was first published … there is no other British SF novel I can think of with this breadth of invention, character and setting. There is something of Dickens in the vast panorama, the mix of wit, terror, sentiment, and satirical characters.

Commentary, part three: I find myself somewhere between messrs Roberts and Ryman. I don’t think the kaleidoscopic view is entirely successful; but nor do I think it by any means stale, particularly early on, when the disorienting effect of immersion is at its most powerful. Roberts is right to point out that the concerns about overpopulation don’t feel as pressing as they apparently did when Brunner was writing the book, but the way in which it asks what it is about humans that limits our ability to live together, that seems to make terrorism or solipsism such common responses to living in Brunner’s future, chimed with me. It also seemed to me a novel provocative on the subject of racial issues and interactions (much more so, actually, than on gendered ones; take that as you will), asking valid questions about postcolonial global relations. What it takes for countries to live together, if you like, and whether benevolent intervention is even possible (whether or not desirable). Which is to say that in many ways it did still feel like now; an alternate version of now, admittedly, but a tomorrow I could recognise.

See also: Wikipedia page here; Karen Burnham’s take here.

The Happening

If I see one more review that lambasts an M. Night Shyamalan film for not having a twist, I’m going to scream. It happens every time they’re released: a certain proportion of reviewers are apparently so unable to evaluate a film on its own that they reinterpret Shyamalan’s effort through a filter of expectation that, inevitably, does it no favours. This is by no means to say that Shyamalan is some maligned genius: Lady in the Water, for instance, was a mess. But while The Happening is by no means perfect, it is an idiosyncratic, interesting experiment that succeeds more than it fails. It’s unsettling at points, and scary twice; expect a twist, though, and you’ll be disappointed.

What you get, as many reviews have noted, is a B-movie disaster by way of Alfred Hitchcock. The film lives up to both halves of that comparison in multiple ways. For the first half, there’s the basic premise behind the happening itself — which, if you haven’t seen a trailer, is that people suddenly start committing mass suicide for no apparent reason. Given that the first tentative explanations are proposed just as the characters are approaching a small town called Hokum, I think it’s fairly clear that we’re not meant to take it entirely seriously (if I did, I would have to conclude that it’s based on an understanding of plant biology that is either much deeper than my own or much, much worse; but this is a film in which all science is Science, with a capital S). Moreover, both the acting and the dialogue are heavily stylised — but in a broad monster movie way, rather than the low-key, heavily naturalistic way of Shyamalan’s earlier films, with lots of heavily telegraphed reaction shots, and clunky observations. And the couple at the heart of the film (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) are almost unnaturally wholesome, in a way that recalls caricatures of ’50s America. Wahlberg’s character seems lost and bewildered, while Deschanel’s secret shame, endearingly, is that she went out for dessert with another man. Both frequently make big eyes at the screen, and each other.

But Shyamalan must know he’s set himself a near-impossible task in his choice of story, because at first glance it requires him to make inanimate objects scary. (It actually requires him to make an invisible force scary, a much easier sell because it can be made visible through its effect on people, but there’s still an initial hurdle to jump.) Which is where the second half of my earlier comparison comes in, because to a large extent he gets away with it. The Happening has a lot more laughs than you’d expect, almost all of which come from character interaction, or from moments when characters acknowledge that what’s happening is simply bizarre; and then something horrible will happen. Which is to say that although the film acknowledges, in various ways, its hokeyness, Shyamalan follows its implications through with conviction, often playing on the tension between terror and laughter. It helps that he’s admirably callous about killing off supporting characters (a lot of whom are very deftly drawn; I particularly liked the jittery private who’s seen most of his base kill themselves), and it helps that he excels at set-pieces and disturbing images. People walking off a building, as seen from the street; or a shot of a gun being successively picked up and then dropped by people shooting themselves in the head; or a car that starts accelerating towards something off-screen, such that you only get a second to realise that the driver’s lost it and is heading for a tree; or a mass hanging. Sometimes he shows you something traditionally gruesome, but more often he manages to make you think he’s going to show you something gruesome, and then pulls away at the last second.

Moreover, there’s much less of a sense of hubris about this film than there was about Shyamalan’s recent efforts. There’s no architect-figure cameo, for instance — indeed, unless I blinked and missed it, no cameo at all. There’s an ecological message, but it’s not thumped home, largely because the most portentious dialogue is placed in the mouths of characters whose grasp on reality may be a bit more fragile than the average; the film is pacy, and over quicker than you expect, if sometimes shamelessly contrived in its plotting; and in general, it feels like a film that sets out to please its audience, rather than its director. It may or may not succeed in that — reviews suggest that I’m in a minority, although the audience I saw it with seemed to get into the spirit of things — but for its distinctively personal approach, I’m bound to admire it. Perhaps I can pay The Happening no higher compliment than this: I can’t wait to see what Nick Lowe makes of it.

HOWTO overthrow the government

Cory Doctorow’s first three novels are all filled with the gosh-wow science fictional ideas I love: fans taking over the Haunted Mansion and the reputation economies in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the ad-hoc traffic-jam P2P networks and time-zone-linked groups in Eastern Standard Tribe, and in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town the tech ideas are mixed in with truly out-there fantasy ideas in a way which shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Add to this his increasingly impressive short stories (I, Rowboat is my particular favourite), and you can see why I was eagerly anticipating the muchpraised Little Brother.

Which makes it a shame that it almost completely fails to work for me.

Marcus is 17, and lives in San Francisco in the unspecified near-future, in a surveillance society filled with gait-recognition cameras and spyware-filled school-issue laptops. Marcus lives to subvert and play the system, and when he’s up against the clueless school administration it’s all fun and games and teenage rebellion. Then San Francisco suffers a terrorist attack, and Marcus and his hacker friends are imprisoned by Homeland Security and released to a city where preventing another terrorist attack is the priority, no matter how much their hi-tech security measures infringe upon privacy and civil liberties. Marcus decides to use all his considerable tech abilities, and the friends and allies he has and makes along the way, to fight back.

Clearly this is a world not too distant from our own, which is what makes the infodumpery and worldbuilding so hard for me to swallow. The first part of the book is loaded with explanations – LARPing, ARGs, TOR, botnets, all explained in handy paragraphs of exposition. I’m not convinced that knowing exactly how anonymous routing or botnets work is necessary for the story, and I’m sure you don’t need to know about SMTP headers to appreciate a cool idea, but I have a certain admiration for just dropping it into the text without even trying to disguise it. Unfortunately I already know what all the acronyms mean, and how a botnet works, and by the fourth or fifth time I had modern technology explained to me it was pretty tedious work.

It’s also a world not too distant from our own in terms of politics, and the way that terror attacks are used as an excuse for the gradual eroding of our freedoms – San Francisco under Homeland Security rule is only a few steps down the line from where we are now. I happen to know the politics of the author, because I read his blog, along with probably several million other people, and being a card-carrying liberal I agree with Marcus/Doctorow’s arguments as to why we shouldn’t be letting this happen. What I don’t get along with is how much of a straw man the other side comes across. I don’t if it’s simplification of the political ideas for a teenage audience, or that I’m jaded to their arguments from too much time online, but when Marcus’s dad sounds like a better-spelled version of a poster from Comment is Free, I find it hard to read Marcus’s rebuttals as any more than lip-service to the arguments. The Homeland Security workers, both low and high-level, are black hats without a shade of grey to them.

So if it’s too didactic and infodumping to appeal to me through the politics and ideas, what about the rest of the story? Here it fares a little better – Marcus is likeable enough if a little too competent at everything he does, and his dilemmas at whether his tactics are causing as much trouble and harm as those of his opponents ring true. I could have done without the revelation that Marcus’s long-time female friend turns out to have feelings for him, especially when I was pleased that they’d managed to do the “hey, my nerdy female friend has grown up and become h4wt!” scene without it turning into a relationship. Marcus’s actual romantic interest is smart and geeky and cool, and basically a female Marcus but I can live with that. There are some neat ideas which have small but important twists on our world – using Livejournal quizzes as an information-gathering tool, the revolution will take places on X-Boxes running Linux, using flashmobs to cause a distraction in the real world. The writing is straightforward and functional, which mostly works – it falls short of conveying the terror of Marcus’s capture by Homeland Security early in the book, but the later scenes (I’m thinking of when Marcus meets Darryl’s father) work better.

For a book which is all about the power of blogs, distributed networks, and what one person can do to undermine the establishment, the ending is disappointingly conventional, as Marcus tells his story to a newspaper reporter – one from a free weekly paper, and not the mainstream media who are as hostile and stupid as you would expect when it’s an internet revolution they don’t grasp. It’s the journalist’s coverage of Marcus’s revolution and torture that finally turns public opinion against the security measures.

I’m probably giving a more negative view of the book than it deserves, but while it may succeed for many as a call to arms and an instruction manual on how to fight the government, it fails for me as a novel. If you’re not familiar with the rhetoric and the ideas it contains, I see it would work better. That’s going to include a lot of people in the target young adult audience, and I find the idea of indoctrinating a generation of young people with a guide to online revolution quite cheering even if the book isn’t for me.